Thank You for Smoking
This article was first published as "Book review: Thank You For Smoking", PR Watch, volume 1, number 3, Third Quarter 1994. The original article was authored by John Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.
The current travails of the tobacco industry are hitting the front pages at an opportune moment for ex-smoker Christopher Buckley, the author of a wickedly funny new novel titled Thank You For Smoking.
Christopher is the forty-two year-old only child of right-wing icon William F. Buckley, Jr. He's also a former Bush speechwriter and a regular columnist in Forbes magazine. His new novel is both a wild satire and a dead-on depiction of the inner workings of the tobacco industry's powerful PR/lobby apparatus.
Thank You For Smoking features inside-the-beltway super-flack Nick Naylor, a divorced forty-year-old spokesperson for the 'Academy of Tobacco Studies.' Buckley based Nick on the Tobacco Institute's real-life femme flack fatale, Ms. Brennan Dawson.
Nick easily justifies his work with his yuppie version of the Nuremberg defense: "I was only paying the mortgage." But after he is kidnapped and almost murdered -- his body plastered with nicotine patches -- his smug world shatters.
This hilarious book moves furiously, filled with phony front groups, sleazy politicians, subliminal Hollywood promotions, Oprah and Larry King, corporate criminals, kinky sex, cancer-stricken activists, tobacco industry spies and, of course, ethically bankrupt flacks.
Buckley blurs the line between fact and fiction, with characters closely resembling Margaret Thatcher (who is now in the employ of the tobacco industry), a dying Marlboro Man (referred to in the book as the "Tumbleweed Man"), and a Kennedyesque tobacco foe.
Some of the book's best moments occur as Nick is "doing lunch" with his two closest friends and colleagues, Bobby Jay and Polly. Bobby Jay works for the "Society for the Advancement of Firearms and Effective Training of Youth" (SAFETY), formerly known as the National Right to Bear Arms Committee. Polly works for "The Moderation Council," representing the spirits, wine and beer industries. They call their threesome the "Mod Squad ... not a reference to the 1960s TV show ... but an acronym for 'Merchants of Death.' Since they consisted of the chief spokespeople for the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries, it seemed to fit."
Other PR flacks mentioned in the book include "the Society for the Humane Treatment of Calves, representing the veal industry; the Friends of Dolphins, formerly the Pacific Tuna Fishermen's Association; the American Highway Safety Association, representing the triple-trailer truckers; and the Land Enrichment Foundation, formerly the Coalition for the Responsible Disposal of Radioactive Waste."
Buckley also has fun with the tobacco industry's tactic of using PR firms to organize "astroturf" grassroots lobbies, when Nick addresses a DC meeting of "the puffers", a front group modeled after the National Smokers Alliance run by Burson-Marsteller:
- They championed the rights of the oppressed smoker who couldn't find a smoking section in a restaurant, or who had to leave his desk and go stand in the snow to have a cigarette. They targeted local politicians who favored anti-smoking ordinances, attacked the surgeon general much more viciously than the Academy itself could, organized 'smoke-ins' ... and distributed morale-boosting T-shirts and caps with pro-smoking emblems modeled on the old Black Panther salute: upraised fists holding cigarettes. Ostensibly, these were grassroots, heartbeat-of-America (or heart-attack-of-America) citizens groups....
- In actual fact, there wasn't really anything spontaneous about the rise of these groups. They were front groups ... almost entirely funded by the Academy, with the money being laundered--legally--by giving it to various middlemen who, posing as anonymous donors, passed it along to the groups as contributions. The whole operation cost next to nothing, relatively, and this way tobacco's friends in the House and Senate could stand up and point to them as evidence of a groundswell....
- Though the Academy naturally preferred to keep a low profile in its contacts with the front groups, Nick felt it was important to have them in for a pep talk. So what if they were stooges? They didn't know that.
Thank You for Smoking also pushes the envelope of life imitating art imitating life. Brennan Dawson, Tom Lauria, and other real-world Nick Naylors are already battling to mitigate the damage done by Buckley's book. According to Buckley, fear of losing cigarette advertising has prompted at least one major magazine to spike a review of his book.
But Thank You for Smoking is a story that the PR industry will have a hard time killing. Actor Mel Gibson has already purchased the movie rights.
- "Thank You for Smoking," Fox Searchlight Pictures.